In early 2020, as Covid-19 threatened the United States, governors ordered citizens to shelter in place, and toilet paper flew off of grocery store shelves, many Americans chose to exercise their Second Amendment right to own a firearm. Approximately 2 million guns were purchased in the month of March alone. Many of those weapons were shotguns purchased by first-time gun buyers with the intended purpose of home defense.
With so many new gun owners in the country, now is a good time to review some basic shotgun safety and training tips. Although this article is targeted at first time shotgun owners, it’s always a good idea to review the basics, even if you’ve been shooting a shotgun for years.
The Four Rules of Gun Safety
First laid out by Jeff Cooper, the father of the modern technique of handgun shooting, these four rules are like the commandments of gun safety.
- All guns are always loaded.
- Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
- Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.
These rules apply just as much to the safe handling of a shotgun as they do to any other firearm. When handling a firearm, we treat these rules as if they are commandments written in stone. This is the best way to develop safe habits.
Choose the Proper Ammunition
Although seasoned shooters may take this for granted, the world of ammo can be pretty confusing for the newest gun owners. With so many firearms and ammo on the market, matching ammo to your weapon can be confusing.
However, this isn’t where you want to make a mistake. Loading your new shotgun with the wrong ammunition could have dire and dangerous consequences. Modern shotguns will have all the pertinent information (including gauge and the length of the chamber) stamped on the rear of the barrel.
Before loading your shotgun, make sure the gauge and the shell length of your ammo matches the specs on your shotgun.
Use Proper Ear and Eye Protection
Always use safety eyewear and hearing protection when shooting your shotgun. Wearing safety glasses can protect your eyes from dirt, debris, and falling shot. But most importantly, your shooting glasses could save your eyes in the rare event of a ruptured case or other catastrophic malfunction.
Shooting a shotgun is a noisy affair, and one blast can be loud enough to cause immediate hearing damage. However, if you shoot regularly (and you should), cumulative noise exposure could also cause extensive irreversible damage to your inner ear, resulting in permanent partial or total hearing loss.
While you won’t have time to put on your ear and eye pro if you ever need to use your shotgun in a home defense situation, you should ALWAYS use them during training. Not only will they prevent injury, they can also help improve your shooting. And they definitely make the experience more enjoyable.
To learn more about your options, check out our Guide to Ear Protection for Shooters.
Store Your Shotgun Unloaded
The safest way to store your shotgun is unloaded, locked in a safe, with the ammunition secured in a separate location. This is especially true if you have children in the home. However, it may be tempting to keep a home defense shotgun locked, loaded, and ready to go should something go bump in the night.
There are plenty of reasons not to store your shotgun with a round in the chamber. First, most shotguns are not drop safe. If you store your home defense shotgun loaded, and it accidentally falls over or you drop it, it could go off. This is true, even if you have the safety on. (The safety only prevents the trigger from being pulled. It doesn’t block the hammer or firing pin.)
That’s not saying you shouldn’t load your magazine and leave the action open. This is often referred to as “cruiser ready” (for the way some law enforcement officers store their shotguns in their patrol cars). In some situations, (read that as “there aren’t any children in the home”) this is one way to store your home defense shotgun.
With the chamber empty you don’t have to worry (as much) about an accidental discharge (although you should absolutely continue to follow the Four Rules of Gun Safety). If you encounter a dangerous threat, you grab your weapon, rack a round, and you’re ready to go. Often the ominous sound of racking a shell into the chamber is enough to send most criminals scampering for safety.
Know How to Shoulder Your Shotgun
Saying you should know how to “shoulder” your shotgun is a tad misleading. The key to accurate and effective shotgun shooting actually lies in the cheek, not the shoulder
Resist the urge to jam the butt of the gun into your shoulder and then slouch over your shotgun until your cheek makes contact with the stock. You don’t want to try to mount your face to the gun. Instead, mount the gun to your face.
How do you do that? Here is a basic run-down.
- Keep your head up and maintain visual contact with your target.
- Bring the entire gun up to your face in one motion. (Don’t jam the stock into your shoulder and then swing the muzzle up until the weapon meets your cheek.)
- Bring the stock all the way up to your cheek first, and then pull the gun back into your shoulder pocket. If you keep your head erect, the butt should always hit the same spot on your shoulder.
Shouldering your shotgun in this manner positions your eye right at the top of the shotgun so you are staring straight down the barrel to the bead.
Aiming Your Shotgun
One of the most pervading and dangerous myths about shotguns is that you don’t have to aim them. Since shotguns shoot multiple projectiles (unless you’re shooting slugs) with each pull of the trigger, many people believe you can just point and shoot and still hit your target.
However, you are responsible for every single shot you make, so a careful aim is the duty of every shooter.
Aiming a shotgun is slightly different from aiming a rifle, and the details will be different depending on your shooting situation. Aiming at fast-moving clay pigeons requires different skills than aiming your shotgun in a home defense situation.
Most shotguns have a simple bead sight on the end of the barrel. Depending on the model, your shotgun may have a rear notch, but most don’t have a rear sight at all. Instead, they have a ventilated rib that leads down the top of the barrel to the end bead.
When you aim a shotgun, the bead should align with the rib. Focus on your target downrange, place the bead over your target, and pull the trigger.
Shooting a moving target requires a bit more finesse, but the bead alignment remains the same.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Thankfully, effective shooting doesn’t require a ton of natural talent. The best way to improve your shooting is to practice, and then practice some more. Proficiency is the best weapon you’ll ever have, and training is the only way to develop it.
Since ammo is expensive and missing targets is frustrating, you can start training at home before you hit the shooting range. Practice shouldering your shotgun and pull a bead on the corner of the room. Do it over and over until you develop muscle memory and can do it without thinking.
Always double check to make sure your gun is unloaded, keep your finger off the trigger, and follow all the rules of gun safety.